Women only carriages: A sad solution to a sad problem? A weak response? Or a harmful precedent?

It’s a horrid fact: women are being sexually harassed on public transport. There are more incidences than ever being reported in Britain: according to British Transport Police, there have been 1,500 reported offences in 2016-17, up from 650 reported in 2012-2013.*  Moreover, this is a gendered problem: 70% of offences are those committed against womenOne response to this problem is women only train carriages. This solution was proposed by Jeremy Corbyn during his Labour leadership campaign in 2015, but the idea isn’t new: Iran, Japan, and India, among other countries, have some form of women only public transport.

Is this a sad, but ultimately necessary, solution? Or, at best, a weak response to a wider problem, and at worst a solution which sets an ultimately harmful precedent?

Proponents of women only train carriages might reason that the numbers speak for themselves. Women are being sexually harassed, and it’s happening now. So we need an immediate solution to an immediate problem. Within minutes of asking a group of friends whether they had ever been harassed on public transport, the distressing answers came flooding in.

A man had his penis out on the bus in Paris and he put it on me. I didn’t realise – I cried. I was violated.

Yes, we agree people shouldn’t harass others, but they do. And it’s awful. Therefore, we need a solution now. The most obvious, and most immediately effective, solution then seems to be to separate harassers from those who are likely to be harassed: women.

But this is where those who vehemently argue against women only train carriages find traction for their own counter-argument. Instead of creating spaces women can be sure they’ll be safe in – they argue we should make all spaces safe for women. Minimally, women only carriages are merely a plaster on the greater wound of dangerous patriarchal attitudes which view women as bodies to be wantonly handled. Maximally, women only carriages will in fact reinforce harmful notions that being sexually harassed as a woman is, well, a woman’s problem: that you as a woman have to sort it out, not those who are doing the harassing. Similarly, we, of sound mind, agree that the problem of rape is a problem of rapists, and we shouldn’t have to or need to fix this by not drinking too much, stopping wearing short skirts… or avoiding all places where rapists might be.

Taking these arguments as responses to one another, a deeper ethical question emerges. Here we are in one respect arguing about whether it is (a) better to prevent (serious) harms (the harassment of women) now, or (b) allow some harms to continue now, by not having the women only carriages, but in the longer term potentially prevent a greater number of harms by positioning the problem (harassment) as a wider societal problem which should be fixed by changes in attitudes. We might speculate that if we have women only carriages, there will be less impetus for forcing through changes in patriarchal attitudes which help to encourage the sexual harassment of women: after all women could just get out of the way of harassers if they don’t want to be bothered… Right? And, again, women only carriages seem to reinforce the notion that instead of the problem being women being harassed as part of a wider social problem of the patriarchy (which it is), that the problem is with women and men sharing space, and so women should remove themselves from public spaces.**

Nonetheless, would I be willing to open myself to a greater risk of sexual harassment, so that attitudes could change slowly over time and more women in the future would be saved from that selfsame harm? It’s a tough call.

There is another sticky ethical question that, in its answer, will give us more reason to support or reject women only train carriages. Think of this: if we are to have women only train carriages, we will need to determine who are, or are not, women. What does this mean for women who have male genitalia: does their biology preclude them from access to such safe spaces? Although a perhaps more pressing problem for rape crisis centres, I think this should not be too worrisome. In fact, transwomen report higher rates of sexual harassment than transmen, and so, if the aim of women only carriages is to protect women from sexual harassment on public transport, transwomen should also have access to service.

Furthermore, how would we police access to these carriages? Would we require it to say ‘Woman’ on a person’s ID, or does self-identification suffice? One (pedantic, I think) argument is that men could insincerely declare: “I’m a woman” and if we aren’t to demand that all women have (a) identification, (b) have the government recognised their gender, then we must let these ‘insincere women’ into women only carriages. This could happen. Some men would be pedantic and awkward and rude enough. But I’d wager that most men aren’t this terrible; and the novelty of being this annoying while trying to make some point about gender identity would wear off pretty fast. Maybe it wouldn’t, but if we had other reasons strong enough to have women only train carriages I think self-identification would work enough in practice such that those who felt the need to be in women only carriages could be.

So what should we do? I think it’s clear there are good reasons for and against women only train carriages, and I’m certainly not dismissive of the ‘immediate solution to an immediate (and awful) problem’ reasoning: some people suck, we need to find ways to stop these sucky people affecting others, and soon. Yet, on balance, the reasons against are just too strong: we do indeed need a fundamental attitude change to women which will in turn change behaviours towards them, and this should be part of a wider fight against the patriarchy. Indeed, not only does the women only carriages solution not go far enough, but it seems likely to, in the long run, make the problem worse. Women being sexually harassed is not a women’s problem – it is a problem of harassers whose attitudes are shaped and reinforced by harmful patriarchal attitudes – and yet women only train carriages may serve to suggest just the opposite.

*Note, an increase in reporting does not necessarily equate to an increase in incidences of harassment.

**This sort of ethical conundrum not unique to this particular debate. Should we plough aid into places which might in the short term benefit greatly, but in the long term would suffer because, for example, local industry has been left reliant on foreign aid? Should we spend lots of money saving a few critically ill people now, or focus on research which will save many more lives in the future for the same money?

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